Principle Scripture: Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
My mother died in 1989, after spending four years or so in a fierce battle with cancer. Sometime after her death, likely the week after her funeral when the family was still gathered and telling stories, my aunt shared a memory. My aunt recalled that time when my mother shared with my aunt what she had experienced as a forty something person of faith, married with two children, who was not just possibly, but likely, dying. My mother had remained active in her faith life — it was important to her, and she went to a lot of church-y things. While prayer meetings where she could pray the rosary or just sit in adoration were favorites, she also liked the pot-lucks and church picnics, the baptism parties and ladies guild events just as well. She loved them all, and dragged – I mean, invited – me to come along!
One day, my aunt recalled (it turns out that it was about half-way through her illness) a change expressed by my mother. When she was first diagnosed, my aunt recalled, my mother would wake up in the morning thinking, “Why me?” She would ask her on the phone, “Why me?” She was stuck and lacked understanding — to be sure, that is a common response and not one to be judged. One day, however, my aunt said that she was talking to my mother on the phone. That day, my mother didn’t ask, “Why me?”; but, instead, she woke up that morning and said, “Okay, God: what now?”
And that relatively simple shift changed her life. It changed ours too.
“Okay God: what now?”
Before the pandemic, I was reading quite a few articles about the church that sounded a lot like, “Why me?” They’re still out there. You know the ones that quote the statistics about how the Church is in decline, the seminaries are in decline, no one goes to church or is interested in organized religion when they could go to brunch instead, and if we keep going at this rate, the Church as we know it will die. Of course, I am preaching to the proverbial choir. Those writers sound like they wake up every morning thinking, “Why me?” But one of the amazing things about these past three years is that not once, not once, have I read an article like that or heard any church person saying, “Why me?” Maybe the things we’ve had to do these past few years, just to survive, have put us in a “What now?” frame of mind. Worship in the garden chapel! That’s outside the box worship, which I like a lot better than remote worship. Outside the box, together in a wide open sacred space.
Okay! So, scripture is filled with “what-now” sort of people. Abraham — he’s a “what-now” kind of person. He and Sarah are also good examples of what “in decline” looks like, at least in worldly sort of terms: two octogenarians, without a biological hope of birthing a line of descendants. If these two with their statistics were all you had to work with, you’d probably wake up saying, “Why me?” and some of us would write articles.
It’s not just outside the box for God to pick Abraham and Sarah as partners in the covenant — it’s extreme, high risk, high danger, big thrills kind of stuff. But frankly, it’s a pattern we’ll see again and again in the Bible. Who does God pick to be the greatest king Israel ever had? A teenaged shepherd boy with a slingshot who can sing. Who does God pick to be the Mother of Jesus? A small-town teen-aged girl with a fiancé and a lot of explaining to do. Extreme — total messing around with our heads and our bodies and our statistics and probability.
And I guess God thinks that’s important: to keep messing with us. It keeps us on our toes. It keeps us interested: What now, God? What could you possibly think of now?! It keeps us from getting too settled and professional and…grown up about our faith—no matter how old we are. You might even say that when God messes with us, it keeps things strange: whenever we’re tempted to feel a little too much at home in this world, God reminds us that we don’t own the place; we’re just visiting.
I think this is what’s going on in this passage from Hebrews. The author is trying to tell us what real faith looks like. Yes, the author says, it was really something that old Abraham and Sarah had faith in God’s strange promises when she was barren, and he was as good as dead. Those two actually believed that God could pull a fast one with the childbirth statistics, and God did, and that’s great. But the really great thing is that Abraham and Sarah were willing to believe all this from a tent. The really great thing is that they were willing to basically camp out for decades, knowing that someday, God would design and build a city with foundations, but they wouldn’t ever see it; someday, God would raise up descendants as numerous as the stars, but they wouldn’t ever meet them. That’s real faith, the author says. Seeing God’s promises from a distance, and not breaking camp.
Most of us cannot claim actual, physical descent from Abraham and Sarah, but we may claim spiritual descent. Their stories, as well as a myriad of stories of other Old Testament heroes, are part of our common story. Indeed, as we hear the stories of how God dealt with God’s own people (with Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Ruth, and David, and all the rest), we notice the responses, though sometimes flawed, made in faith. When we hear those responses, our own responses to God are informed, formed, and transformed. The responses of our flawed but faithful ancestors help us to understand what our being in the world means, and they help us to understand what it means to ask, “What now?”
Today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews is indeed a paean of praise to our ancestors in the faith, called the “great cloud of witnesses” of which the biblical heroes are a part. So also, down through the centuries, there have been men and women of faith who have added to their number. The Episcopal Church Calendar commemorates the lives of some of these witnesses. In the coming weeks, for instance, we will remember and celebrate Dominic, Edith Stein, Laurence of Rome, Clare of Assisi, Florence Nightingale, and Jeremy Taylor.
On August 15, we will celebrate the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. Inspiring generations of Christians, her response of faith – as covenant mediator and covenant bearer – is embodied in her words to the angel sent from God: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary’s “yes” to God played a central part in the story of God’s people, and it reverberates down through the centuries.
On the day before — on August 14 (a Sunday this year, so he falls from the remembrance calendar) — we will remember and honor Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who took strength from Mary’s own response to the angel, the Magnificat. Felt called to the priesthood, Daniels entered the Eastern Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with anticipation of becoming a parish priest. He would have turned 83 years old this year, probably retired after having baptized, married, counseled, and buried a large number of parishioners. But, in March 1965, Jonathan Daniels would heed a televised appeal by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was asking for workers to come to Selma, Alabama, to secure the right to vote for all citizens. An initial impulse strengthened during the singing of the Magnificat at Evensong: “He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.” Jonathan wrote:
“I knew I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear to me in the weeks ahead.”
Having thus gone to Selma, Jonathan and several others were jailed on August 14th for the work they were doing. Upon their release, they went to a small store where they had previously shopped. Sixteen year-old Ruby Sales, an African-American with whom Jonathan was jailed, was the first to reach the door of the store. As Ruby approached, she was met by a deputy sheriff armed with a shotgun. Cursing Ruby, the deputy prepared to fire but Jonathan pulled Ruby aside and took the shotgun blast himself, square in the chest. Jonathan Daniels was nourished by Holy Scripture and the sacraments, encouraged by the example of the cloud of faithful witnesses. Meeting a martyr’s death, Jonathan had learned to be a living example of faithful image-bearing.
Today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews is indeed a paean of praise to our ancestors in the faith, the “great cloud of witnesses” of which the biblical heroes and the Saints of the Church are a part. But so also, down through the centuries there have been men and women of faith who have added to their number. Have there not been in our own lives, in our own congregations, those whose examples of faith have been used by God to encourage us, to strengthen our own faith?
I want you to think of those people in your own life who encouraged you in the faith. Go ahead!! Remember them! During our prayers today, when we pray, “We thank you, Lord, for all the blessings of this life,” I want you to name them, to remember them. Maybe we can talk about some of them over coffee after today’s service.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews calls us to follow Jesus, to hold fast to Jesus.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings to us so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”Hebrews 12:1